Hi again, I hope I can get to the end today. I am just back from the Docs re the shoulder I injured when I fell over on 21st June just outside Luz St Sauveur. She is referring me to the muscular/skeletal clinic. Thats good I thought 'cos after my weight loss I am a bit skeletal. Trouble is fitting it in, I am off to Sevenoaks to stay with Liz on Sunday and from there up to Whitby Festival (calling in to see my old walking companion, Geoff who lives at Pickering). So I am not back in Bridgwater until September. Anyway on with the show....
Tuesday 20th July: Goulier to Siguer
Very hot and sunny with a terrific thunderstorm after we arrived at Siguer. The gite owner at Goulier was running me into Vicdessos at 0930 so we had a bit of a lie in. Breakfast at 0830 then off to get money. We were back by 11am and on the trail again by 1115. This time Henry had some money so he could pay his way. I had told him there was no accommodation or shops for 15 days so he thought he didn't need any money!! We were at the Col de Risoul in 30 mins and continued up to the Col de Grail (1485m) by taking a forest track rather than the GR10. It ran parallel but was much faster and easier as it was a vehicle track. This shaved 30 mins off the book time. There were parked cars, a refuge, and a picnic table there so we stopped for lunch, baguette and pate. A young French lad we had seen before rolled up. I was to see quite a bit of him later when we formed 'The international brigade'! His name was William. After lunch we set off for the Col de Lercoul and then descended to Lercoul where we found a group of children playing hide and seek around the village fountain. We pressed on down a sunken lane in really oppressive heat and humidity. For some weeks we had been plagued by horseflies and I think that lane was where they all originated from. Once they pitched on your skin they were clearly on a mission for your blood. On spotting one there was time to take your hand out of the walking pole strap, put the pole down and give them a hefty slap. They seemed oblivious to their impending doom. Trouble was you didn't feel them land, it was the bite that made you aware of their presence. We speeded up to try and walk faster than the flies could fly, and must have looked strange, racing down the lane waving our arms around trying to stop them landing in the first place. It was not a good experience as we were both dripping wet with the humidity and heat. Eventually we reached Siguer where there is a Gite D'Etape provide by the local (parish) council, completley free of charge. I can't imagine an English Council providing any facilities let alone free ones. There are no cooking facilities but 2x3 tier bunk beds, toilets and hot showers. There was only one bed free which the old man grabbed. Henry rolled his sleeping bag out on the floor. William arrived shortly afterwards and joined Henry. The other beds were occupied by 3 french people (who finished on the same day as me) and 2 English guys, one of whom, Dave, was doing a short stretch to accompany his friend Andy, who I was eventually to walk and finish with. After the terrific thunder storm we went out into the courtyard and washed our socks etc and cooked our evening meal on our camping stoves. We encountered one of the 2 guys we had seen in Alus-les-Baines who was having to continue alone as his companion had dislocated his shoulder and had to retire. When he heard of my water container problems Dave gave me a spare one he was carrying which was very helpful, thanks Dave.
Wednesday 21st July: Siguer to Cabane de Clarans
It was cloudy and overcast all day and we were in thick mist at the end of the day. We were up at 0615 and Henry did the porridge thing again. We were the last to leave about 8am. We had a very gruelling period of up to start with through the ubiquitous wood which went on and on and on...(no change there then you all cry!) We passed through Gesties and carried on up. The waymarking was good despite what it said in the guide books. Once in the open we could see William ahead and in the distance, on the summit of Pla de Montcamp, Andy and Dave. In between them was the French group. We reached the summit in 2hrs 45 mins not the 3hrs 55mins the Cicerone guide reckoned. The waymarks were wooden posts driven into the ground with a white and red paint bands around the top. Trouble is they were put in by someone taller than me who obviously did it by banging one in and then walking forward 'til he could just see the top of it before he put in another - another cause for SARA (Short Arsed Ramblers Association) to campaign on. I stuggled to see the next post, it was a good job William and the other French people were just ahead. we descended to a very posh and fairly new Cabane used by Cowboys (well they looked after the cows)! Just past there was a smaller Cabane and the French trio stopped there for the day. We carried on with William until he stopped for lunch. We eventually overtook Dave and Andy, also stopped for lunch. They overtook us when we stopped! we descended through a wood and came to a river which I assumed was near the road and another tourist spot, not far from our cabane. After a while I checked my map and discovered there were two rivers and we were only at the first. It was a fair old way to the second - merde!! The descent to the second river was horrendously steep and very slow. We caught up with Dave and eventually Andy, finally arriving at the road together. It was very misty and damp by this time and we quickly found the track up to the Refuge de Clarans, where we came to a very basic cabane. (We found out later that there was a much better one about a quarter of a mile further on, stocked with food and other supplies. Because of the mist we never saw it.) Andy and Dave decided to pitch tents outside but me and Henry decided to rough it in the cabane. It did not even have mattresses, just a wooden platform which could just about fit 4 sleeping bags. Just as we rolled our bags out William arrived and joined us. A little later Hosea turned up and joined us as well. We were very cosy, which was just as well as it was very damp and cold. We cooked our evening meal and retired. At 3 in the morning we were wakened by rustling and 4 Petzl head torches swept the building trying to locate the cause. It was a squirrel intent on eating Henry's bar of chocolate. Hosea became very animated and leapt out of bed in his underpants, grabbed a leki pole and tried to hit said rodent. I only wish my camera had been to hand as it really was quite a sight. We were disturbed several times by the squirrel and eventually I decided it wasn't worth the hastle so ignored it.
Thursday 22nd July: Cabane de Clarans to Refuge De Rulhe
Misty and overcast, dense cloud, thunderstorms and torrential rain. A very demanding, tiring and scary day which ranks as one of the toughest I experienced on the route. It started with one of the steepest ascents we have experienced, through woodland leading to scrambling over high crags in appalling weather. We were up at 6.15 cooking breakfast. We were again the last to leave in thick damp mist but after Henry had refilled his water container from the stream we overtook William, however we all decided to keep within sight of each other because of the poor visibility. We emerged from the wood into high bracken and broom, and were soon soaking wet. Suddenly, out of the mist an enormous building emerged, this was the Centre d'Acceuil du Plateau de Beille, a restaurant built for skiers. We went in for Coffee and something to eat and found Andy and Dave there. Dave was departing from this point to return to England. The waitress asked if we were heading for Rulhe, informing us that someone had been killed on this leg last week and that we should be careful given the conditions. The three of us, Henry, William and I set off together along the route which followed a wide clear track; how could you get killed here we thought! As we left the building a dog started to follow us and despite all our efforts he just kept on behind us. Although it was very foggy the route was easy to follow. We reached the Col de Finestres (1967m) where Andy caught us up and we continued together. After more than 2 hours walking from the restaurant we came across a shepherds hut, complete with shepherd and dogs. We managed to leave our dog there!! After the Col de Diorte (2093m) we started to climb steadily leaving the wide track behind. We had a navigation problem at this point as the track split in two with no waymarks. We found the right one and proceeded to the top of the mountain. It was cold and wet with little visibility and by now quite heavy rain. The trail followed a ridge which snaked its way precipitously up and down sharp crags. Easy to fall off and die here I thought!! We then heard thunder and were soon enveloped in a thunderstorm. As we all had aluminium walking poles we were a little concerned, being over 2200m. Andy suggested we should shelter under a rock until I pointed out that all the rocks were below us, we were on the top!! We carried on, putting off the lunch stop as we were quite close to the refuge. The rain intensified! After what seemed an age we started a slow descent and eventually a large building loomed out of the mist - The Refuge de Rulhe. My boots once again were as wet inside as out. We booked in for demi pension and showered etc - you know the routine by now. It then came on to rain and hail far heavier. The warden recorded 35mm of rain that afternoon. Henry cooked himself some lunch while I talked Andy through the route past Merens which I had done with Geoff. We would arrive at Merens the following day. The meal was good but the building was quite cold as all power was provided by solar panels and they had not had any sun for a while. Hosea was at the refuge and so we had a conference together after we got the weather forecast for the following day - it was not good and the warden advised against setting off in thunder. We decided the best thing to do would be to wait til mid day for a promised improvement. This would mean Henry and I would miss the train back to Toulouse. In the early evening there was a brief let up and Hosea and I ventured out to take some photos but it was short lived and we never got any views. After we went to bed the wind got up to gale force, banging shutters and other bits of the building, and still it rained.
Friday 23rd July: Refuge de Rulhe to Merens Les Vals
Thick mist, drizzle and very wet. Henry's alarm woke us at 6am but as it was persisting down with rain we stayed in bed and got up at 6.50 and went down for breakfast. The meteo (weather forecast) was for thick nuage (cloud) all day. Henry heard me complaining about the 'low' cloud and pointed out that at 2185m the cloud was perfectly respectable, is was the bloody land that was the problem, - it was too high!! We had breakfast and decided to wait to (a) ensure no more thunder (b) see if the mist lifted. At 9am we decided to reassess at 10am. Someone produced a melodeon and commenced playing it at which point Hosea appeared and suggested that, as there was no sign of a let up, it was time to go. Thus the international brigade was formed, Henry, Andy, Me,(Eng) Hosea (Esp) and William, (Fr) much to peoples amazement, got kitted up and set off at 9.40. Hosea set a cracking pace and I rechristened him 'speedy gonzales' I could not keep up so he kept stopping for Henry and me to catch up. Henry was not slow, he was just keeping an eye on his dad to make sure I didn't get too far behind. Thanks again Henry! It was very wet and whilst my boots were still soaking wet from yesterday, it was soon clear that any available space in them was filled with water as I slurpled down the mountain. We passed through a large boulder field, climbed a high ridge and then started the long descent. Not far from Merens we dropped out of the cloud which improved matters a bit and followed a lane into Merens, arriving just in time to hear the Toulouse train go through - Bummer! When we arrived in Merens Henry and I went off to the Station to find out when the next train was, the others set off in search of the Gite D'Etape. I suspected I might meet up with them when I repicked up the trail after Vernet Les Bains but said Cheerio just in case. It was only William that I never saw again. The next train was after 6pm meaning arriving in Toulouse after 8pm so we decided to stay in Merens and catch the 8am train on Saturday. Arriving at the Gite there was no sign of the others, (I later found they had gone to the camp site) however the owner and his wife recognised me from my overnight with Geoff and we were made very welcome. Building works had progressed and there was now additional toilets and a wet room style shower, great. As before the food at this place was excellent and I would thoroughly recommend it. They do rooms as well as bunk house style accommodation. As Henry was flying back to Bristol we sorted out some gear. I took his Platypus, his GPS (the IGN mapping in mine ran out at Fos) and sundry other items. Henry took some redundant bits of mine like my GPS. I also abandoned all my food except one meal as from here on there was accommodation every night. I had 6 days of walking left!!!
Saturday 24th July: Merens Les Vals to Vernet Les Baines by train and coach.
Sods law says it had to be hot and sunny today. We caught the 8am train with no problem. My boots were still soaking so I wore my sandles instead. Two french drunks sat near us and tried to engage us in conversation ranging from the Loch Ness Monster to Sean Connery, quite an interesting trip really. We arrived in Toulouse and said our goodbyes. I was really sorry to see Henry go. Walking together had been a really good experience and without Henry I would never have completed it, so thanks so much Henry, for being there when you were needed and for helping me over the difficult bits. You came up trumps and I hope you do manage to do the rest at some time in the future!! Liz had sorted out a flight home for Henry and although we had noted down the details we both thought it was a Saturday flight, so after a look around Toulouse Henry headed off to the airport, only to find it was a Sunday flight! I caught my connection to Narbonne, where I had to change again. The Stations were incredibly busy. The last train was 2 coaches long with 4 coaches worth of people to get on it. Luckily I got a seat and arrived in Perpingnon OK. I walked to the coach station and got on the one Euro coach to Vernet, arriving too late for the post office and my phone sim. This meant another wasted day on Sunday and not being able to start until after 9am on the Monday. I went to the Gite D'Etape, where again I was recognised and booked in. I felt very lonely and apprehensive about the next 6 days walking, with visions of having to stop a french person to ask them to take my photo if I ever got to the Med. I ate out in an Italian restaurant that night. The gite was fairly quiet, a single french lady from Paris who tried to talk me into walking with her next day and a young family with a baby, the father of which was also quite chatty but spoke no English and a mother and teenage son.
A visitor has just arrived so i will finish this with a final posting in a while! au revoir!